Clune Arena can be a destination that threatens your hearing. Fans, when they’re in the right mood, can place a scare into the hearts of visiting players.
I’ve been to college basketball arenas all over America. Rupp Arena in Kentucky. The Carrier Dome in Syracuse. Marriott Center at Brigham Young. The Pit in Albuquerque.
On the right day, with the right crowd, an intimate arena on the edge of Colorado Springs ranks right up there with any destination in America.
On Saturday, Air Force burst to a first-half lead over the Nevada Wolf Pack, who stampeded into Clune with 20 wins in their past 24 Mountain West games.
Not long ago, the crowd would have responded with a titanic roar. The Wolf Pack would have been shaken. The Falcons would have been supremely lifted.
On Saturday, the crowd declined to get involved in any lifting. The crowd never even flirted with being great. Good, for a couple of minutes, maybe, and that’s it.
Michael Lyons, Air Force star from 2009-2013, sat a few rows off the court with his 16-month-old son. He remembers afternoons and nights when the Clune crowd was fantastic.
When he watched his little brother Trevor help push the Falcons to a 30-21 lead, Michael hoped for fantastic again.
Fantastic never arrived.
“I’m very surprised,” Lyons said a few minutes after Air Force’s 86-75 loss. “When you have a decent amount of folks in here and nobody is really going crazy, especially when you’re up against a team like that, it’s a little bit deflating.”
He’s right. It is deflating.
Air Force has struggled, which has reduced Clune Fever. The Falcons have dropped 21 of their past 30 conference games. Losing chases fans away. This is true anywhere.
Empty seats did not surprise me Saturday. The quiet was the surprise.
I don’t sit in the stands as a fan. I don’t shout and stomp. I don’t question the sanity of the refs.
But decades ago, before watching sports became my profession, I was in the stands for the Nuggets, the Broncos, the Buffs and the Falcons. I shouted. I stomped. The refs and the visiting team became my enemies, if only for a couple of hours. I was a loud, snarling, happy and angry fan.
In this century, I’ve spent a few dozen afternoons and nights at Clune when it was inhabited by a game-altering gang of fans.
Fans who loved their Falcons. Fans who intimidated the visitors and the refs. Fans determined to be heard. Fans who strained to make a difference.
This is a personal thing. I get that. I can’t tell you how to act at games. I don’t want to tell you how to act. That’s your decision.
But I will ask a couple of questions:
If you buy a ticket, are you going to just sit there?
Or are you going to make a difference?
The joy and the kick are found in being loud and involved and relevant. Otherwise, you might as well be sitting at home watching the game on TV.
Air Force coach Dave Pilipovich talked, in general terms, about the blessing of a great home crowd. He said a loud, locked-in crowd can add “six-eight points” to his Falcons, and he remembered a thunderous Saturday afternoon in 2013 against No. 11 New Mexico.
Michael Lyons scored 30 points against the Lobos, but Pilipovich more clearly remembers Clune’s sell-out crowd.
“That was awesome,” Pilipovich said. “We won because of the crowd.”
In the first half Saturday, the Falcons were again on a tear. The Wolf Pack was reeling, and Michael Lyons was hoping for a fresh outburst of ear-threatening emotion.
On a quiet Saturday at Clune, the outburst never arrived.